Mobility & Housing in Culver City
While state housing officials are pushing Southern California cities to add upwards of 1.34 million new homes by the end of the decade, cities throughout the region are grappling with the fact that the housing supply is already far behind what’s needed, with a very low vacancy rate, and the housing cost burden far exceeds the national average.
Nowhere is the problem more acute than right here in Culver City, where the state is pushing for the addition of 3,300 new units, and where the city’s housing stock has not nearly kept pace with its explosive job growth, making affordable housing, traffic and mobility a daily struggle for many residents.
“The problem is that we don’t have a consistent vision on housing,” said Councilman Göran Eriksson, who said the city is in many ways becoming a victim of its own success. “We have been very successful in attracting jobs – Amazon, Apple, HBO – but with that comes a responsibility to encourage the development of new housing. We haven’t done our part on that front.”
Eriksson added that the problem is even more pronounced because Culver City has no swaths of open land on which to build the thousands of units of new housing forecasts say it needs.
“The only thing we can do is repurpose land, and we don’t want to build Cumuluses in our city,” he added, referring to the 30-story high rise on La Cienega just across the border in Los Angeles that includes more than 1,200 residential units.
So, if the city does not want to go the route of Manhattan to provide new housing, what options are available?
One option is “up-zoning” – a process in which a city revises its zoning code to allow more dense development, even in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. The result is the peppering of two-, three- or even four-unit buildings in areas that currently include only single-family homes.
Councilman Alex Fisch said that, due to recent statewide legislation, up-zoning has essentially already arrived in the form of ADUs or accessory dwelling units, known colloquially as “granny flats.”
“R-1 has had a very sacred role in the American imagination for a long time, but the state law is basically allowing three on a lot on every lot starting in January,” said Fisch, who said he is not particularly opposed to up-zoning if it means more people can get to the services they need right in their own neighborhood. “If done right, that’s a gentle way to create that 10-minute neighborhood.”
But Fisch and Eriksson agree that perhaps the better route for Culver City is to look at its well-traveled and under-developed commercial corridors to provide the housing the city needs.
Boulevards like Washington, Culver, Sepulveda and Jefferson are filled largely with single-level commercial buildings that could be more effectively used to provide services such as restaurants and retail at the ground level and residential above.
“Someone recently accused me of wanting to convert Culver City to Paris,” Fisch said. “Well, they’re not entirely wrong. We need to create a nucleus and develop a higher-density village around a place like the train station. That kind of TOD (transit-oriented development) is easy and obvious, but there is probably more support for corridor development: residential above the retail on our major boulevards. But that doesn’t necessarily make for great neighborhoods.”
Eriksson said any housing solution the city undertakes will only work if it puts people closer to the places they want to go and closer to the modes of transportation that they need to get there without having to get in their cars.
But in conjunction with the addition of new housing along the city’s main boulevards, Eriksson said it is critical to improve the city’s public transit system and offer more options for people to get out of their cars.
“A lot of sophisticated data shows that if you remove just 5 to 10% of the cars from the road, traffic will move at the posted speeds,” said Göran, who added that there are many ways for the city to help encourage the public to meet those numbers. “Some people want to focus on bikes only, but better would be to get people to take public transportation one day a week. If we can do that, everything will flow better. We need to show that buses are a viable alternative.”
Eriksson said that while he is a cyclist himself, commuting on two wheels is not always an effective solution for those who are too old or too young or who need to transport things like groceries. A more effective use of the city’s resources, he said, would be to focus on the city’s already successful bus infrastructure.
Simple fixes like providing better signage at bus stops; naming stops to breed familiarity and wayfinding; and enhancing the atmosphere of the city’s buses would go a long way toward encouraging people to give buses a try.
“We need a local lanes for bikes, scooters, e-bikes. We need to have a space for them that’s not on the sidewalk and not on the street,” said Twitchell, who added that the city has struggled with how to implement a bike program that is both cost-effective and integrates into the Metro bike-sharing program that is being employed in Los Angeles.
It seems as though buses and bikes could both get attention (and funding) from the city, but those modes each struggle to find space within the city’s built-out infrastructure.
“We have such limited rights-of-way, so we need to prioritize,” said Eriksson, who said he would like to see the city explore dedicated bus lanes and reversable bus lanes that would move commuters faster and more efficiently during daily commutes.
Culver City Architect Dane Twitchell, who serves on the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Action Committee, said the city must find a place for those who walk and bike, too.
Some communities have railed against on-demand, dock-less e-bikes rented from independent companies like Jump or Lime because they are often discarded by riders on random street corners or blocking sidewalks. Twitchell said, instead, the city will move to join the Metro bike-share system in early 2020, adding new docking infrastructure throughout the city.
But that program is not without its own challenges. One investigation showed that of the 3,000 taxpayer-funded Metro bikes employed in the City of Los Angeles, nearly 1,000 of the 2,500 bikes have been stolen and/or vandalized.
For Twitchell, the best solution comes down to a hybrid of efforts: more bikes and bicycle infrastructure, more housing near where people want to travel and a change in the way the public views buses.
“Very few people take the bus,” said Twitchell, who said he is a regular. “I’m often the oldest, whitest guy on the bus, and that has to change.”
“We need people in ties taking the bus to work. We need people to encourage people to get visitors to their house by bus – ‘Take the No. 1 bus, get off at the Sony stop and I live one block from there.’ It’s a cultural issue, and we need to change behavior,” said Eriksson, who added that the city’s bus system is much better than many people realize. “Our buses are clean. We’re finally getting our electronic tracking system up so that more than 40 bus stops will be equipped with screens providing real-time information about when the next bus is coming.”
“We need to get away from the idea that transit is just for people without any other option,” said Fisch. “If you could get across town in 20 minutes for a buck seventy-five, people will use that.”
But even if people get out of their cars and bike, scoot, walk or take the bus to their destinations, the biggest challenge, Fisch said, is putting people close to the jobs and services they use every day so those trips are short, easy and cost-effective.
“We have a chance to really lead here in Culver City,” he said. “We need to look at incentives for developers not only to build more housing, but to build the kind of housing that looks and feels like what we want to see in our city.”
Some of that can be accomplished through the city’s General Plan Update process, which is already underway. The process will take a comprehensive look at the way the city is zoned and will make recommendations to the City Council about adding density, changing uses and setting up the city’s primary planning document to best situate Culver City for the next 20 years of future development.
“One the unique challenges that Culver City faces is that we have great job growth, share regional issues like homelessness, housing and mobility challenges with our neighboring Los Angeles and don’t have the local real estate to solve it,” said Culver City Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Colin Diaz. “To me that means one thing – we have to make changes with regard to height and density. Yes, the state has forced some of the change with AB 1482, but adding some ADUs won’t solve the problem in and of itself. We need to rezone areas along Sepulveda and other retail and commercial hubs to utilize more than the one story that most of these structures currently occupy.”
Eriksson added that while much attention has been paid to adding affordable housing, it is critical to find ways to add what he calls “attainable housing” – housing that is attainable for the kinds of employees who will be calling Culver City “home” over the next two decades.
“We need more affordable housing – yes. But that cannot be our 100% focus, he said. “The new employees in the new businesses coming to our town will be making $80,000 or $100,000 a year, and that’s not enough to justify $4,000 a month for a one bedroom. We need to address the mid-level of the market.”
He added that many young people are willing or even eager to live without a car and get around with just their feet, a bike and public transit, but it is the city’s responsibility to encourage new housing to be built in locations that make that possible.
Diaz said the city needs to work with developers and not against them.
“The truth of this is that the city needs to truly embrace its public-private partnership opportunities,” he said. “There are developers out there that can assist us reach some of our goals, but they need to have mutually benefitting incentives that make sense.”
Of course, residents who have chosen Culver City for its quiet, tree-lined streets are understandably concerned and wary that new development will mean even more gridlock and tall buildings that will ruin the aesthetic that attracted them to the city in the first place.
Nevertheless, state legislators are demanding more housing, and that means more housing is undoubtedly on its way.
Rather than allow the state to shove its version of housing down the throats of local residents, Twitchell said it is important for people embrace the realities of the future and work together to find the best ways to implement additional housing.
“The biggest problem is NIMBYs, the people who just say ‘no,’” he said. “We’re going to need more density, but we need to be smart about how we do it. We need better design, better architects, and we need the neighbors to be reasonable.”
“It’s not a comfortable conversation for most,” said Diaz. “But, it is directly related to affordability, mobility and quality of life. If you couple changes to height and density with micro transit options, you begin to really make a dent in our housing, mobility and affordability crunch.”
But while policy makers might see a plan they are willing to embrace, convincing the community will be a different task, altogether.
“People, I think are in the denial phase,” Fisch said. “This is the number of new homes we need to build. This is the backlog. This is the future demand. It’s a painful process figuring out how to be a Culver City with 20% more homes with the charm we all love. It won’t be easy.”